George W. Bush, after five years in the presidency, does not intend to get sucker-punched by the Democrats over race and poverty. That was the driving force behind his Katrina speech last week. He is not going to play the part of the cranky accountant—“But where’s the money going to come from?”—while the Democrats, in the middle of a national tragedy, swan around saying “Republicans don’t care about black people,” and “They’re always tightwads with the poor.”
In his Katrina policy the president is telling Democrats, “You can’t possibly outspend me. Go ahead, try. By the time this is over Dennis Kucinich will be crying uncle, Bernie Sanders will be screaming about pork.”
That’s what’s behind Mr. Bush’s huge, comforting and boondogglish plan to spend $200 billion or $100 billion or whatever—“whatever it takes”—on Katrina’s aftermath. And, I suppose, tomorrow’s hurricane aftermath.
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George W. Bush is a big spender. He has never vetoed a spending bill. When Congress serves up a big slab of fat, crackling pork, Mr. Bush responds with one big question: Got any barbecue sauce? The great Bush spending spree is about an arguably shrewd but ultimately unhelpful reading of history, domestic politics, Iraq and, I believe, vanity.
This, I believe, is the administration’s shrewd if unhelpful reading of history: In a 50-50 nation, people expect and accept high spending. They don’t like partisan bickering, there’s nothing to gain by arguing around the edges, and arguing around the edges of spending bills is all we get to do anymore. The administration believes there’s nothing in it for the Republicans to run around whining about cost. We will spend a lot and the Democrats will spend a lot. But the White House is more competent and will not raise taxes, so they believe Republicans win on this one in the long term.
Domestic politics: The administration believes it is time for the Republican Party to prove to the minority groups of the United States, and to those under stress, that the Republicans are their party, and not the enemy. The Democrats talk a good game, but Republicans deliver, and we know the facts. A lot of American families are broken, single mothers bringing up kids without a father come to see the government as the guy who’ll help. It’s right to help and we don’t lose by helping.
Iraq: Mr. Bush decided long ago—I suspect on Sept. 12, 2001—that he would allow no secondary or tertiary issue to get in the way of the national unity needed to forge the war on terror. So no fighting with Congress over who put the pork in the pan. Cook it, eat it, go on to face the world arm in arm.
As for vanity, the president’s aides sometimes seem to see themselves as The New Conservatives, a brave band of brothers who care about the poor, unlike those nasty, crabbed, cheapskate conservatives of an older, less enlightened era.
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Republicans have grown alarmed at federal spending. It has come to a head not only because of Katrina but because of the huge pork-filled highway bill the president signed last month, which comes with its own poster child for bad behavior, the Bridge to Nowhere. The famous bridge in Alaska that costs $223 million and that connects one little place with two penguins and a bear with another little place with two bears and a penguin. The Bridge to Nowhere sounds, to conservative ears, like a metaphor for where endless careless spending leaves you. From the Bridge to the 21st Century to the Bridge to Nowhere: It doesn’t feel like progress.
A lot of Bush supporters assumed the president would get serious about spending in his second term. With the highway bill he showed we misread his intentions.
The administration, in answering charges of profligate spending, has taken, interestingly, to slighting old conservative hero Ronald Reagan. This week it was the e-mail of a high White House aide informing us that Ronald Reagan spent tons of money bailing out the banks in the savings-and-loan scandal. This was startling information to Reaganites who remembered it was a fellow named George H.W. Bush who did that. Last month it was the president who blandly seemed to suggest that Reagan cut and ran after the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon.
Poor Reagan. If only he’d been strong he could have been a good president.
Before that, Mr. Mehlman was knocking previous generations of Republican leaders who just weren’t as progressive as George W. Bush on race relations. I’m sure the administration would think to criticize the leadership of Bill Clinton if they weren’t so busy having jolly mind-melds with him on Katrina relief. Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, is using his new closeness with the administration to add an edge of authority to his slams on Bush. That’s a pol who knows how to do it.
At any rate, when Republican officials start diminishing Ronald Reagan, it is a bad sign about where they are psychologically. In the White House of George H.W. Bush they called the Reagan administration “the pre-Bush era.” See where it got them.
Sometimes I think the Bush White House needs to be told: It’s good to be a revolutionary. But do you guys really need to be opening up endless new fronts? Do you need—metaphor switch—seven or eight big pots boiling on the stove all at the same time? You think the kitchen and the house might get a little too hot that way?
The Republican (as opposed to conservative) default position when faced with criticism of the Bush administration is: But Kerry would have been worse! The Democrats are worse! All too true. The Democrats right now remind me of what the veteran political strategist David Garth told me about politicians. He was a veteran of many campaigns and many campaigners. I asked him if most or many of the politicians he’d worked with had serious and defining political beliefs. David thought for a moment and then said, “Most of them started with philosophy. But they wound up with hunger.” That’s how the Democrats seem to me these days: unorganized people who don’t know what they stand for but want to win, because winning’s pleasurable and profitable.
But saying The Bush administration is a lot better than having Democrats in there is not an answer to criticism, it’s a way to squelch it. Which is another Bridge to Nowhere.
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Mr. Bush started spending after 9/11. Again, anything to avoid a second level fight that distracts from the primary fight, the war on terror. That is, Mr. Bush had his reasons. They were not foolish. At the time they seemed smart. But four years later it is hard for a conservative not to protest. Some big mistakes have been made.
First and foremost Mr. Bush has abandoned all rhetorical ground. He never even speaks of high spending. He doesn’t argue against it, and he doesn’t make the moral case against it. When forced to spend, Reagan didn’t like it, and he said so. He also tried to cut. Mr. Bush seems to like it and doesn’t try to cut. He doesn’t warn that endless high spending can leave a nation tapped out and future generations hemmed in. In abandoning this ground Bush has abandoned a great deal—including a primary argument of conservatism and a primary reason for voting Republican. And who will fill this rhetorical vacuum? Hillary Clinton. She knows an opening when she sees one, and knows her base won’t believe her when she decries waste.
Second, Mr. Bush seems not to be noticing that once government spending reaches a new high level it is very hard to get it down, even a little, ever. So a decision to raise spending now is in effect a decision to raise spending forever.
Third, Mr. Bush seems not to be operating as if he knows the difficulties—the impossibility, really—of spending wisely from the federal level. Here is a secret we all should know: It is really not possible for a big federal government based in Washington to spend completely wisely, constructively and helpfully, and with a sense of personal responsibility. What is possible is to write the check. After that? In New Jersey they took federal Homeland Security funds and bought garbage trucks. FEMA was a hack-stack.
The one time a Homeland Security Department official spoke to me about that crucial new agency’s efforts, she talked mostly about a memoir she was writing about a selfless HS official who tries to balance the demands of motherhood against the needs of a great nation. When she finally asked for advice on homeland security, I told her that her department’s Web page is nothing but an advertisement for how great the department is, and since some people might actually turn to the site for help if their city is nuked it might be nice to offer survival hints. She took notes and nodded. It alarmed me that they needed to be told the obvious. But it didn’t surprise me.
Of the $100 billion that may be spent on New Orleans, let’s be serious. We love Louisiana and feel for Louisiana, but we all know what Louisiana is, a very human state with rather particular flaws. As Huey Long once said, “Some day Louisiana will have honest government, and they won’t like it.” We all know this, yes? Louisiana has many traditions, and one is a rich and unvaried culture of corruption. How much of the $100 billion coming its way is going to fall off the table? Half? OK, let’s not get carried away. More than half.
Town spending tends to be more effective than county spending. County spending tends—tends—to be more efficacious than state spending. State spending tends to be more constructive than federal spending. This is how life works. The area closest to where the buck came from is most likely to be more careful with the buck. This is part of the reason conservatives are so disturbed by the gushing federal spigot.
Money is power. More money for the federal government and used by the federal government is more power for the federal government. Is this good? Is this what energy in the executive is—”Here’s a check”? Are the philosophical differences between the two major parties coming down, in terms of spending, to “Who’s your daddy? He’s not your daddy, I’m your daddy.” Do we want this? Do our kids? Is it safe? Is it, in its own way, a national security issue?
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At a conservative gathering this summer the talk turned to high spending. An intelligent young journalist observed that we shouldn’t be surprised at Mr. Bush’s spending, he ran from the beginning as a “compassionate conservative.” The journalist noted that he’d never liked that phrase, that most conservatives he knew had disliked it, and I agreed. But conservatives understood Mr. Bush’s thinking: they knew he was trying to signal to those voters who did not assume that conservatism held within it sympathy and regard for human beings, in fact springs from that sympathy and regard.
But conservatives also understood “compassionate conservatism” to be a form of the philosophy that is serious about the higher effectiveness of faith-based approaches to healing poverty—you spend prudently not to maintain the status quo, and not to avoid criticism, but to actually make things better. It meant an active and engaged interest in poverty and its pathologies. It meant a new way of doing old business.
I never understood compassionate conservatism to mean, and I don’t know anyone who understood it to mean, a return to the pork-laden legislation of the 1970s. We did not understand it to mean never vetoing a spending bill. We did not understand it to mean a historic level of spending. We did not understand it to be a step back toward old ways that were bad ways.
I for one feel we need to go back to conservatism 101. We can start with a quote from Gerald Ford, if he isn’t too much of a crabbed and reactionary old Republican to quote. He said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.”
The administration knows that Republicans are becoming alarmed. Its attitude is: “We’re having some trouble with part of the base but”—smile—”we can weather that.”
Well, they probably can, short term.
Long term, they’ve had bad history with weather. It can change.
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Here are some questions for conservative and Republicans. In answering them, they will be defining their future party.
If we are going to spend like the romantics and operators of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society;
If we are going to thereby change the very meaning and nature of conservatism;
If we are going to increase spending and the debt every year;
If we are going to become a movement that supports big government and a party whose unspoken motto is “Whatever it takes”;
If all these things, shouldn’t we perhaps at least discuss it? Shouldn’t we be talking about it? Shouldn’t our senators, congressmen and governors who wish to lead in the future come forward to take a stand?
And shouldn’t the Bush administration seriously address these questions, share more of their thinking, assumptions and philosophy?
It is possible that political history will show, in time, that those who worried about spending in 2005 were dinosaurs. If we are, we are. But we shouldn’t become extinct without a roar.